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Indiscriminate mining, urbanisation are destroying the Aravalli Range

Indiscriminate quarrying and mining have flattened many mountains in the Aravalli Range which is thousands of years old, leaving the national capital and its surroundings vulnerable to the encroaching desert. Bharat Dogra gives a first-hand report and suggests remedial measures

A research study conducted recently by the Central University of Rajasthan has found that over 31 hills in the upper Aravalli Range have disappeared over the last 20 years or so. They ranged between 200 and 600 meters above sea level. Many more hills in the lower and middle levels of the ancient range are similarly affected. This alarming disappearance is largely due to indiscriminate mining and urbanisation.

It is shocking indeed that hills which had existed for tens of thousands of years can vanish so fast. This will not only have very adverse environmental impact, it also poses a danger for the national capital region (NCR) and the fertile farmland adjacent to it in Haryana and Western UP, as the region will be lashed even more by sand- and dust-laden winds from desert areas once the protective cover of the hills is gone.

This is not an isolated case. The ecologically crucial hills of the Bundelkhand Region have also seen similar ravaged by indiscriminate mining in Mahoba and Chitrakut Districts and other areas. These mining belts further endanger water sources in an area already affected by water scarcity and are also responsible for shocking exploitation of workers, as witnessed by this writer, who visited some of these mining areas as a member of a team of the National Human Rights Commission. 

The Aravalli Mountain Range extends for about 670 km from Delhi towards Ahmedabad, most of it lying in Rajasthan and Haryana. This is one of the oldest geological formations in the entire world. Yet it has taken only a few decades to damage it extensively, flattening mountains which for thousands of years prevented the encroachment of the Thar Desert. The single most responsible factor is indiscriminate mining and quarrying.

A while back, I studied the impact of stone mining in several villages of the NeemKa Thana area in Sikar District. Villagers shared with me the shocking tale of ruined farmland, pastures and water sources. The Kasavati River had almost vanished. Blasting led to cracks in houses and stones being hurled dangerously far and wide. There had even been some deaths due to this. Not just quarry workers, several villagers too suffered from silicosis and other dust-related diseases. As their livelihoods based on farms and pastures were eroded and daily life became dangerous, with houses becoming unsafe and water sources being destroyed or depleted, people justifiably felt that their right to life was being threatened. However, when they protested against this, they faced lathi blows and arrests. 

The villagers told me that an activist who opposed all this, Pradeep Sharma, hailing from a family of freedom fighters, had been murdered. Recently, there have been reports from other parts of the Aravalli Region that even police officers who tried to check indiscriminate mining were not spared. DSP Surendra Singh was mowed down by a stone dumper just a few weeks before he was due for retirement in Nuh District of Haryana. The fact that those indulging in illegal mining in these areas do not hesitate to attack even police officials speaks volumes of their power and high connections.

The police say they have registered a large number of cases of illegal mining and initiated action. The judiciary has also been quite active, and several strong orders over the recent years testify to its efforts to check illegal mining and encroachments to protect the Aravallis. Several citizen groups, environmental and wildlife groups too have been active on this front. Despite all this, ecological havoc in the Aravallis continues.

The issue needs to be looked at from the perspective of social justice too. Workers have been frequently employed in quarries, mines and stone crushers in exploitative and unhealthy conditions. Organisations like the Delhi-based Bonded Labor Liberation Front and its Alwar branch have rescued several workers caught in bondage.

Last year, in the middle of adverse weather and pandemic-related difficulties, more than 10,000 houses were demolished in Khori, Faridabad District, in the name of removing encroachments, causing immense distress to working class people. A better approach would have been to make the communities living in these areas responsible for greening some of the surrounding land, possibly in return for some remuneration drawn from the Afforestation budget, thereby contributing to protection of the environment as well the shelters and livelihoods of weaker sections. No one can green an area as well as the people living on the spot, particularly women.

Similarly, when parks and sanctuaries were created in the Aravalli Region, it often involved the displacement of people (particularly tribal communities) or substantial erosion of their livelihood prospects. Why not instead provide them opportunities to protect wildlife and habitats as additional livelihood options? In areas that have been devastated by mining and then abandoned, why not launch ecology rehabilitation drives that can provide satisfactory livelihoods to people?

There are several badly degraded forests in the region. Tribal communities and various other weaker sections can be involved in regeneration of these forests. Initially, they can be paid for their work and, later, given rights over sustainably harvested minor forest produce from the regenerated forests, on the understanding that they protect the forests and their fauna and flora.

Another consideration is that of making available construction materials on a sustainable basis. While areas which have suffered heavy ecological damaged due to over-exploitation in the past deserve to be completely rested from mining at least for some years, and ecology-regeneration schemes implemented there, in other areas, systems should be created for sustainable mining of stones or minerals in limited quantities, the amounts being decided in close consultation with local people. These limits should be respected even if there is increased market demand for construction materials at some periods. The technology used for mining should be least ecologically disruptive, even at the cost of being slow and labour-intensive. In fact, labour-intensive methods should be given preference, as they will generate employment.

Clearly, such choices can be made only in conditions of real decentralization, with more power being vested with gram panchayats and gram sabhas. A share of the earnings from mining should also be set aside for ecological rehabilitation. With the curbing of the mining mafias, the criminalisation of areas where they operate can also be avoided. Such a developmental path is relevant not just in the context of Aravalli Hills, but also with reference to other mountain ranges such as those in the Bundelkhand Region which are being increasingly threatened by indiscriminate mining and deforestation.

(The writer is a senior freelance journalist and author who has been associated with several social movements and initiatives. He is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. He lives in Delhi.)